Sunday, March 14th, 2010


coverLike many New Zealanders, I know James Belich through his TV work – he’s a kind-of bearded version of Simon Schama, except in a more earthy coloured suit. Or perhaps he’s history’s David Bellamy. Either way, his grasp of detail amid the sweep of history is made more engaging because his content is so much more local.

His session at the New Zealand Post Readers and Writers Week filled more than half of the Embassy Theatre and his reading showed that his new work, Replenishing the earth, is centred on exploring settlement as it happened in New Zealand  and comparing it to various examples of settlements around the world.

At its heart is the boom and bust rhythm of the massive migrations of settlers from 1793 to 1939. It laid the basis for the British and American economic wealth as the trade flow went back and forth and the Napoloeonic wars hamstrung expansion of other European powers.

The scope of Belich’s research is quite breathtaking – Argentina, Siberia, the US and Canada, South Africa and Australia. He said it was easy to laugh at the grandiose prophesies of the boom mentality, but at the time there was no set of limits. Chicago, for instance, went from a population of 50 to 1.1million in a single lifetime. A population could double in ten years – imagine Christchurch having a million people in 2020. Or New Zealand having eight million.

The idea that fortunes could be made and the endless plenty of nature would never subside drove a change in population and geography that had far further-reaching and longer-lasting implications than the imperialism of empire expansion. This idea was also discussed at Simon Schama’s Town Hall Talk when Schama said the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as the time when this kind of economics were given a reality check.

Whereas the empire needed indigenous populations, settlers were indifferent to them and chewed them up and spat them out. Belich brought it all to life with immense detail.

“Pigs were the sewerage system … the streets have no names … think of a shanty town building site full of anthills of humans.”

Interesting too was the role of technology – wind, water and wood technology was widely available and combined with mining and iron technology it “fused and merged” to help fuel the booms. The busts were big too – New Zealand on its own has 240 ghost towns, he said.

Belich said “getting under the skin of history”, in a similar way as historical novels, was where the fun lay for him; getting past the cardboard cutouts. His work was moving more toward historical analysis – turning other historians into unpaid research assistants.

Quotable quote: Historical scholars were less confident in their discipline than the public – “they keep stabbing the horse they’re riding”.

I was really looking forward to this session after hearing Derek Johns speak earlier at the festival. Obviously, so were lots of other people as the Downstage Theatre, a brutalist structure that would be at home in any corner of Christchurch, was packed to the gunnels.

Noel Murphy from the New Zealand Book Council did the appropriate thing for any discussion about publishing and made sure everyone had a drink – water of course -and then abruptly copped some unnecessary flak for talking too fast. There were also some yelps about lack of volume, but as the guests were introduced – Johns (A P Watt), Michael Heywood (Text), Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) and Laurie Chittenden (HarperCollins) – the audience mostly composed themselves and got on with listening.

Learning about each guest’s career roles gave us an insight into the world publishing scene and a potted transtasman publishing history. The former “lucrative dumping ground” of the Australian and New Zealand market has now taken two different paths – Australia is a rights territory and does not allow parallel importing, New Zealand has no geographical rights and publishers here can potentially be competing against overseas imprints of their own works.

Murphy’s cleverly put questions gave broad scope for the panel to answer. Is this the golden age of publishing? The large number of formats and wide availability of books, plus the high levels of readership / literacy in places like New Zealand, Australia and Iceland would seem to be ideal conditions.

  • Derek Johns said silver age – very optimistic about reading, he said that digital offered a great deal of potential but there were many systemic publishing issues to be worked out. In Britain, at least, he said, people didn’t pay enough for books. The novel was a function of nineteenth-century leisure time – digital was much more flexible.
  • Michael Heywood was impressively relentless in his support of independent publishing, and authors. Festival and reading culture in this part of the world is in great shape, but at risk are quality independent booksellers and smaller publishers. The best work is done when publishing is the daily bread of a company. His summation? Golden-ish. The digital expansion will be fast  – but what was really exciting was the range of titles on best-seller lists.
  • Sam Elworthy said New Zealand publishing was exciting as in many areas there hadn’t been books published before, and that the process of finding new talent was one of discovering authors who could encourage a broad audience, even for academic subjects.
  • Laurie Chittenden also said golden, but wasn’t sure what came next.  She made the encouraging point that the American market is much more diverse now and the ‘Americanisation’ of manuscripts has largely stopped.

What would have made the session a stand out for me would have been if there were some digital books on display, or a datashow of what some of the devices look like. I’m not sure the audience would have been able to see them, or may have thought the Kindle was something you light the fire with, but that’s probably festival fatigue talking.

I’ve tried books on my iPod touch and quite like the format, and this week the number of available books overtook games  on the iTunes store. Perhaps the audience would have a better handle if they saw some of the technologies and possibilities. Audrey Niffenegger was right when she said that they are evolving quickly and are quite primitive, sneakily imitating the book, and that soon new forms would spring up for them. Being able to enlarge the text, or slow down the speed at which a book is read to you, or increase the volume – these are options that digital books offer people – this audience may have been reassured by that.

The panel were also all agreed that the publishing process was valuable for readers – the development of authors and manuscripts, the aggregation and quality assurance functions, for instance. They didn’t focus on any threat that digital might encompass, but were eager to ensure that the publishing industry – including authors and readers – had a long future yet.

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